Traditions are always an interesting subject to me and as we acknowledge St. Patrick’s Day it seems a good time to check out a few. Corned beef and cabbage is hardly an Irish tradition. While the Irish certainly cooked corned beef, it was actually bacon (more like ham) and cabbage that was the yearly tradition. The unpopularity of corned beef in Ireland comes from its relationship with beef in general. From early on, cattle in Ireland were not used for their meat but for their strength in the fields, their milk and the dairy products produced. In Gaelic Ireland, cows were a symbol of wealth and a sacred animal. Because of their sacred association, cows were only killed for their meat if they became too old to work or produce milk. Beef was not even a part of the diet of the majority of the population.
However, the move to America changed that for many Irish immigrants. Corned beef was made popular in New York bars at lunchtime. The bars offered a ‘free lunch’ to the Irish construction workers who were building NYC in the early part of the 20th century. The catch was that you had to buy a couple of beers or shots of whiskey to get the free lunch. This is how corned beef became known as an ‘Irish’ food.
The Irish Americans transformed St. Patrick’s Day from a religious feast day to a celebration of their heritage and homeland. The popularity of corned beef and cabbage never crossed the Atlantic to the homeland. Instead the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal eaten in Ireland is either lamb or bacon.
While on the subject of traditions, it brings me to Irish Soda Bread. Contrary to belief, soda bread did not originate with the Irish but instead with Native Americans before European colonization. At that time soda bread was made by using pearl-ash or potash (a natural soda in wood ashes) to make the bread rise. This became the forerunner to baking soda.
In the early and mid 1800’s, Ireland adopted this soda bread which is most often identified with them. Because it required so few ingredients, soda bread was an economic choice for staple breads. Irish families generally had kitchens with open hearths instead of ovens with breads being baked on griddles or in iron pots. This resulted in a loaf that was dense, slightly sour and with a hard crust. The original recipe contained nothing more than flour, buttermilk, baking soda and salt. The buttermilk was leftover from the butter making process. Irish Soda Bread pairs well with soups, stews and meat dishes.
Preheat oven to 425 F. Lightly flour a baking sheet. In a large bowl, combine flour, caraway seeds, baking soda & salt. Stir in buttermilk to form moist clumps. Gather dough into a ball. On a lightly floured work surface, knead dough until it holds together, about 1 minute.
Shape dough into a 6-inch diameter by 2-inch high round. Place on prepared baking sheet. Cut a 1-inch deep X across the top of bread, extending almost to the edges. Bake until bread is golden brown about 35 minutes. Remove from oven, cool completely on a wire rack.
Today is Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day. The date can be any time between February 3rd and March 9th. It is exactly 47 days before Easter Sunday, based on the cycles of the moon. The expression ‘Shrove Tuesday’ comes from the word shrive, meaning ‘absolve’. This day is observed by many Christians who make a special point of self-examination of considering what wrongs they need to repent and what amendments of life or areas of spiritual growth they especially need to ask God’s help in dealing with.
Shrove Tuesday precedes Ash Wednesday or the first day of Lent. Popular practices, such as indulging in food that one sacrifices before commencing the fasting and religious obligations associated with Lent.
FASTNACHT, (or Shrove Tuesday) is celebrated throughout Germany with masquerades, carnival processions and ceremonials that vary in character according to locality and folk custom. Fasching is Germany’s version of Mardi Gras, a French term for ‘Fat Tuesday’. This carnival climaxes on the night before the fast. It’s roots go way back to ancient Roman times.
Fastnachts are yeasted doughnuts that are eaten in Germany instead of pancakes. Typically they have no hole or filling and are dusted with powdered sugar. The rich treats presented a way to use up all of the butter, sugar and fat in the house prior to the self-denying diets of Lent.
GERMAN POTATO PANCAKES are my Shrove Tuesday meal. I definitely grew up enjoying pancakes and with the many flavor options of today how could you not like them!
Par boil potatoes; cool slightly so you can peel & grate them. In a small bowl, combine next 6 ingredients. In a separate dish, whisk together melted margarine, buttermilk & eggs. Carefully combine wet & dry ingredients, stirring only until just blended.
Heat a non-stick griddle to 350 F. Fold potatoes into batter. Using a 1/4 cup measure, place batter on grill, spreading slightly. Brown lightly on both sides.